If you have ever taken a walk along the South Bank of the River Thames in London strolling eastward from Westminster Bridge opposite the Houses of Parliament, you will come across some of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and cultural centres. The London Eye, London Dungeon, London Aquarium, Royal Festival Hall, the National Theatre. The place is totally buzzing with atmosphere both inside and outside, day and night.
The South Bank has long been a hotbed for creativity, innovation and the Arts. It is a Mecca for street performers and tourists love to gather around these guys and girls and be entertained or bemused for free. Just as your walk takes you near the National Theatre, you will come across the birthplace of some British creative history that is sadly, so I recently discovered, under threat.
It’s called the ‘South Bank Undercroft Skatepark’ and it sits under the belly of the upper walkways between the theatres complex and the Royal Festival Hall. It’s open on one side but is otherwise a concrete alcove of no commercial value. To some, it’s an ugly, graffiti-daubed eyesore and hangout for London’s delinquent youth. To others, it’s a work of Art in itself created over decades at the hands and expressions of the city’s young people. Over time, virtually every spare inch of the otherwise depressingly drab cement walls and columns of the alcove have been covered in some of the most colourful and vibrant graffiti I have seen anywhere in any of my travels. Now I actually hate graffiti and the wanton defacing of property by people who don’t own it, but I’ve come to really like and admire the Undercroft, which I see as an organic work of art – an art that is both inanimate and animated. People walking the South Bank will stop at the Undercroft not only to photograph the muralled walls, but to watch the skills or attempts at skills of the young people who practice their skateboarding there and not just skates but bikes, scooters and rollerblades too.
The Undercroft is recognised as the birthplace of British Skateboarding back in the 1970’s when the craze took off here after (like many before and since) being imported from America. The youth of the time took unofficial ownership of the drab concrete alcove with sloping floors to bounce off walls, cement slabs…anything they could use to create a new manouver and in doing so became themselves a visitor attraction. Today, new generations of skaters still practice their skills there, drawing gasps from small kids and parents alike as they fly by. Sadly, the kids of today may be the last generation to paint their mark on the piece of national history. That’s right; the property developers are moving in.
A £multi-million redevelopment of the South Bank is waiting planning permission from Lambeth Council who run the borough of London the Undercroft sits in. The redevelopment promises to give a complete make-over to an area that let’s face it has looked pretty shabby and in need on modernisation for many years now. The developers promise to increase the amount of creative space given over to the Arts and for the development of young talent and in an era of austerity the fact that anything at all wants to be spent on supporting the Arts surely should be welcomed. Needless, to say that once details of the plan were revealed, which did not make any provision for the Undercroft in its present form, the Skateboarders of the UK united and took to the campaign trail to save the place. A petition is currently being canvassed to save the Undercroft that has so far raised over 50,000 signatures of support. Lobbying of politicians, celebrities and sportsmen and women is also taking place.
As the arguments for and against the South Bank redevelopment are aired in public, it was made known that there is no intention to rob the young skaters of today of their fun. There is a plan to create a brand new purpose-built skate park under the Hungerford Bridge further down the Thames. A surprising campaigner for the redevelopment is iconic musician, songwriter and broadcaster Billy Bragg, himself a symbol of youthful rebellion when I was growing up. He makes his case for the plans very well claiming that the creative interests of young people are at the heart of the new plans and you can read his own words here. Interestingly, the next article I Googled while researching this reads “Billy Bragg is a knob. Ignore him and help save the Southbank Undercroft” and you also read all about that here.
Having spent some thought on the arguments both ways over this piece of London I really like, my feeling is that Mr Bragg and the supporters of the South Bank redevelopment are missing the point. The issue here is not just about a makeover that will hopefully better hone the skills and talents of the young (not to mention also increasing the commercial revenues generated in this highly popular stretch of London real estate). It’s about Art and History, both inextricably linked at the Undercroft. To simply do away with history in the name of progress and modernisation is never to have learned anything from history at all. It also reveals a fascinating irony that the (presumably) older people who have drawn up the new plans to boost South Bank’s famed creativity show very little creative talent themselves: surely there is a way of achieving the commendable new goals and still preserve the History too? I reckon if this debate were taking place in, say, Paris, Berlin or New York…a way would be found.
There has been some final intense lobbying now in the last few days before Lambeth Council make their decision to grant planning permission or not and just very recently the skaters received the backing of two powerful an unexpected allies – their neighbours in the Royal Festival Hall and English Heritage. Both have joined forces with the skaters’ campaign to have the Undercroft listed as a heritage site, something that would severely damage the redevelopment bid though not scupper it.
Time will tell, I guess, but while the skaters were still campaigning as I walked past them last week I added my name and support beneath their campaign slogan. After all they’re bloody well right. You can’t move history.
Online petition here.